Despite the pandemic’s “devastating” impact on the restaurant industry, renowned chef Geoffrey Zakarian has found the silver lining — and it’s family.
“At the end of the day, it’s about time. How much time do you have to sit and do a puzzle with your kid?” said Zakarian, a father of three. “You’re setting up kids for a sense that this family thing is pretty good. I know I can count on my family.”
You can count on Zakarian — a chef, author, TV host and judge, restaurateur, philanthropist, businessman and James Beard Award winner — to be entertaining and illuminating as the headliner at the 2021 Cleaver and Cork, the premier culinary event sponsored by the Tallahassee Community College Foundation. This year, proceeds will benefit TCC’s athletic program.
He will be the latest Food Network superstar to visit the capital city for the annual fundraiser. Previous Cleaver and Cork dinners have drawn Chefs Amanda Frietag, Marcus Samuelsson and Alex Guarnaschelli.
Zakarian said he would like culinary arts students to see beyond the glitter of celebrity chefdom to “get a sense of what’s realistic from someone who’s been through it.”
“You’re living in 2020 and you’re thinking ‘oh my gosh,’ but there was a before and there will be an after,” he said.
Zakarian had a degree in economics, but before getting his MBA, he went to Europe and fell in love with food. “Everything was fresh and perfect,” he said. “Being a chef found me.”
But first a young Zakarian worked hundreds of hours without pay as a young apprentice, learning and loving the craft. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and began working at Le Cirque, learning under French master chef Alain Sailhac, one of his mentors along with famed chef Daniel Boulud.
In 2001, Zakarian opened his first restaurant, Town, which was awarded three stars from the New York Times. He has since moved on to own other restaurants, primarily in New York City and South Florida but they are temporarily shut down due to the coronavirus.
Yet, since March he has been “crazy busy.” The Zakarian family, normally based in New York City, is temporarily living in Tampa so the children can attend classes in person.
Zakarian has made the transition from studio to home kitchen, doing segments on the QVC channel for his line of kitchen products, called Pro For Home, and fittingly, he has worked on a family project with his children.
The result is a cookbook called “The Family that Cooks Together,” with 85 Zakarian home recipes, written by his daughters, Madeline, 13, and Anna,11 with son George, 6, participating as well. The girls have appeared as talk show guests and they’re all promoting the book.
Being together in the kitchen is the key, not necessarily sweating, over a big meal, he said.
“Someone can be peeling the onions, someone is helping to clean the peas or do the dishes, help with shopping, setting the table,” said Zakarian. “It’s all cooking together. It’s waking up and adding something to the meal. That’s what we try to stress. That’s family — and there’s nothing better than that.”
“You put these moments in a basket and they collect and they collect and what happens? Your kids grow up and they do that with their kids. You’re instilling a family tradition and that’s big for me.”
Zakarian, originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, said he was fortunate to have grown up in a family “where it was normal to have everything fresh. We didn’t buy anything in cans so I was really spoiled as a kid.”
As for his own cooking, he quipped “I get the best products and I try not to mess them up.”
With all of his endeavors, it all comes down to this: “Passion. You have to do something you love.”
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Cleaver and Cork
The 2021 event has four parts, including a new attraction, plus a chance to see the chef virtually, said Heather Mitchell, the TCC Foundation’s executive director.
- A progressive cocktail party on Feb. 28 kicks off the event in advance of welcoming Zakarian. Five local restaurants will each host a private party offering a different course and wine pairing with their spin on Zakarian’s recipes. Single tickets are $150, $250 for a pair.
- The cooking demonstration on March 4 will feature Zakarian with time for questions and answers. Single ticket $45; virtual access single ticket $25.
- The event’s signature dinner is March 5, with Zakarian curating a meal for the event with each course paired with sommelier-selected wines. Single ticket $300, pair $500, a table of eight is $2,500.
- The new attraction, a downtown Food and Wine Festival, will be on March 6. Zakarian will open the festival with a cooking demonstration and book signing. There will be four cooking demonstrations during the day and five classes. The event will also feature local restaurants and wine tastings. A food ticket is $50, food and wine ticket $75, a class and tasting ticket an additional $25 and a VIP pass $300.
- For more details and tickets, visit https://www.cleaverandcorktcc.com/